The northern spotted owl is the poster bird for why the federal Endangered Species Act should be refined.

Since the owl was first listed as “threatened” in 1990, timber harvests in Northwestern national forests have been reduced by 80 percent, throwing thousands of loggers, mill workers and others out of work and crippling many rural economies.

Driven as much by anti-logging lawsuits as by regulators, protecting spotted owls wrecked the livelihood of families that for generations had worked in the woods. Communities are still struggling and counties in Oregon, Washington and Northern California remain on federal life support, some teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

Though the range of the spotted owl stretches from central Mexico into British Columbia, the northern population, which lives in old-growth forests, is deemed to be “threatened.” That’s in spite of the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 7,000 to 10,000 northern spotted owls living between Marin County, Calif., and British Columbia.

Agency scientists estimate its population is shrinking in 7 of 11 study areas and the number of northern spotted owls is declining by about 2.9 percent a year.

Why? Logging and wildfires are two causes. While logging in much of the owl’s 12.1 million-acre range has been choked off, nothing can be done about the wildfires. They are acts of nature.

So is the third reason for the northern spotted owl’s shrinking population – the barred owl. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, barred owls “are larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable than spotted owls.” Scientists say the barred owls – with striped feather patterns instead of spots – displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting, interbreed with them and, sometimes, kill them. Wherever barred owls are, the population of spotted owls shrinks, scientists believe.

Barred owls are present throughout Clatsop and Pacific counties.

Now wildlife managers want to kill 3,000 barred owls as part of an experiment to see if it helps spotted owls.

In other words, the Endangered Species Act has put federal wildlife managers in the role of Mother Nature. One might suppose that if federal managers miscalculate and wipe out populations of the barred owl, it will be protected under the ESA, too.

Protecting spotted owls was largely a backdoor way of safeguarding the forests in which they reside from U.S. Forest Service mismanagement, most notably during the Reagan administration.

Wildlife conservation and forest management can coexist and even thrive side by side. Someday, if we ever again have a functional Congress, the ESA ought to be revised.

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